July, 2016

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Preliminary findings of the Ring ouzel fieldwork in Glen Clunie

    Guest blog by Dr Innes Sim Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    Well that’s another breeding season completed for the Ring ouzels in Glen Clunie, where we have been monitoring their numbers and demography since 1998. So, what was 2016 like for them?

    Numbers and productivity down in 2016

    In my last blog, I showed that numbers in Glen Clunie were down from 35 pairs in 2015 to 30 this year (-14%), and that the population has declined from 39 pairs in 1998 to 30 in 2016 (-23%). This long-term decline in numbers mirrors what has been happening nationally, with the UK population declining by 29% during 1999-2012 revealed in a recent paper in Bird Study, The status of the Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus in the UK in 2012.

    In addition, breeding season productivity was rather poor in 2016. Most pairs layed their eggs later that average, and nest success rates, fledged brood sizes, and the number of pairs making 2 breeding attempts were lower than the long-term average. We think that conditions in their wintering grounds in North Africa largely determine over-winter survival and thus numbers returning in spring, while low productivity figures this year may have been negatively influenced by the cold, dry, spring weather.

    Our 'Super Ring ouzel' rears offspring number 50

    Our star male has had another successful breeding season this year, rearing a further 7 young from 2 breeding attempts in 2016. This means that he has now reared 50 young to fledging from 14 breeding attempts in 8 years.

    So, as well as being the oldest recorded ring ouzel in the UK, he is almost certainly the most productive, with no signs of senescence creeping in! We shall be keeping a close eye out for him next year, to see if he can extend his longevity record.

    Photo showing the 'Super Ring ouzel' who has now reared 50 young in 8 years

    High chick return rate

    Each year we individually colour-ring all the chicks we find, so that we can measure their return-rate to Glen Clunie in subsequent years. This is not the same as their true survival, however, since we know that a proportion of chicks disperse to breed in other glens and thus go un-recorded.

    This year, our chick return rate was 9%, which is higher than the 1998-2015 average of 5%. We might expect 1, or perhaps 2, chicks from a single brood to return in the following year, but amazingly all 4 chicks (1 male and 3 females) ringed in a single 1st brood nest in 2015 were seen back in Glen Clunie in 2016! This is the first time this has happened in 19 years, so is quite remarkable. In addition, one of these (a female) was seen by a birdwatcher in a neighbouring glen (Glen Ey) on 17 April, before turning up in Glen Clunie in early May and rearing a single brood of 4 young in June.

    Photo showing a female Ring ouzel sighted in Glen Ey before breeding in Glen Clunie in 2016

    For more information on our Ring ouzel fieldwork visit the previous blogs 'Unravelling what is needed to save the Ring ouzel''Searching for the Super-Ouzel', 'First Ring ouzel nestlings emerge', 'First Ring ouzel brood leave the nest'  and 'Breeding numbers of Ring ouzel in Glen Clunie down in 2016'.

  • Breeding Bird Survey results 2015

    Guest blog by Dr Mark Eaton, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

    The latest Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report published today [7 July 2016] reveals changes in the breeding populations of 111 widespread bird species in the UK during the period 1994-2015.

    BBS is a UK-wide volunteer monitoring scheme organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the RSPB.

    The trends in the BBS report are a vital measure of the state of breeding birds across the UK. Wild bird populations are an important indicator of the health of the countryside, and knowing to what extent bird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to bird conservation.

    The headlines of the latest report include:

    • Turtle dove down by 93% in the UK from 1995 to 2014
    • Internationally important wader assemblages are in severe decline in the UK
    • Willow tit down 77% in the UK from 1995 to 2014

    The Turtle Dove is the UK’s fastest declining bird and is now considered at risk of global extinction

    Turtle dove numbers have hit a new low, having declined by 93% since 1994: this is the UK’s fastest declining bird. This crash is mirrored across Europe, with a decline of 78% between 1980 and 2013, and as result of this trend it was added to the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Global Red List year last year – it is classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

    If we are to prevent Turtle dove going the way of the Dodo, we need urgent coordinated conservation action, with farmers and conservationists working together to create the best conditions for them on our farmland.The effort of farmers helping Operation Turtle Dove offers this species a lifeline.

    Photo of: Turtle dove by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    Internationally important wader assemblages are in severe decline

    The report reveals long-term declines in Oystercatcher by 33%, Golden Plover by 25% and both Curlew and Lapwing by 57% between 1995 and 2014. The rapid decline of the Curlew in Scotland and across the UK is a major concern, given that the UK has a huge global responsibility for this species, supporting approximately one quarter of its world population. The efforts of the Curlew Recovery Program offer the hope of recovery for this species.

    Willow tit declined by 77% between 1995 and 2014

    Second only to Turtle Dove in its rate of decline, numbers of our endemic race of the Willow Tit have fallen by 77% since 1995; at the same time the species has disappeared from large swathes of the country, most notably across southeast England and East Anglia. Ongoing RSPB research into Willow Tit is aimed at determining what is special about the sites where Willow Tits are hanging on, and thus informing how best to manage woodland and scrub habitat to turn its fortunes around.

    Chiffchaff and Blackcap might be benefiting from climate warming

    In addition to the UK trends, one of the great benefits of the huge sample of data collected by BBS volunteers is that trends can be produced at national or even regional scale for many species. These trends reveal interesting variation, which can often tell us something about the causes of change in species’ numbers. For example, the increase in two migrant warblers, the Chiffchaff and Blackcap, has been far greater in Scotland (550% and 465% respectively) than in the UK as a whole (96% and 151%); these migratory species have spread northwards and might be benefiting from a warming climate.

    Photo of: Chiffchaff by John Bridges (rspb-images.com)

    Yellowhammer declines of 57% in Wales between 1995 and 2014

    The Yellowhammer, a Red-listed farmland bird that showed large declines before the start of the BBS, has shown only a slight decline (of 14%) over the last two decades across the UK as a whole. But the BBS trend for Wales reveals a much steeper decline, of 57% between 1995 and 2014. The Yellowhammer is often thought of as a species of arable farmland, with declines linked to changes in the farming of cereals and other crops in the 1980s. But in the grassland-dominated west of the UK, such as Wales, it appears that it is more recent changes in pasture management, and the loss of areas of arable and fodder crops, that has had an impact by reducing the availability of crucial winter food resources.

    Photo of: Yellowhammer by Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)

    How does the Breeding Bird Survey help bird conservation?

    BBS data can provide an invaluable research resource for determining the causes of declines in conservation priority species; for example, current research is using BBS data to help understand the recent declines that have led to the Red-listing of Curlew.

    BBS data is one of the key metrics needed for assessments such as those featured in the State of Nature report, the annual The state of the UK's birds report, Wild Bird Indicators, and Birds of Conservation Concern's red, amber and green lists, which enable us to identify the species requiring conservation action most urgently.

    Combined with other data sources, such as the Bird Atlas 2007–11, the BBS can help us to target conservation effort for particular species. Maps of density and trends produced from BBS data can assist in the spatial targeting of action, and habitat specific trends, can help us identify whether a species is struggling in any particular habitat.

    Thank you to thousands of dedicated volunteers

    BBS involves around 2,700 participants who survey more than 3,700 sites across the UK. We would like to thank all surveyors for their skill and commitment - the BBS would not be the success that it is today without them.

    For more information follow @RSPBScience and @_BTO  #_BBS, #BBSReport

  • St Helena plover: Wirebirds on the up?

    This year’s annual wirebird (St Helena plover) census shows an increasing population trend, but there’s still no room for complacency.  Dennis Leo and Rebecca Cairns-Wicks from the St Helena National Trust update us on this UK Overseas Territory species.

    Photo: David Higgins

    Each year the National Trust working with volunteers carries out an island-wide count of the wirebird population. The census provides information about how well the population is doing - long-term trends in the population size help us to identify whether conservation management efforts are being effective.

    Wirebirds are predominantly found in two main habitats on St Helena: dry, mid-altitude pasture and semi-desert areas. In these areas the grass or other broadleaved herbs are low and with some bare ground. The birds also like open views to help early detection of approaching predators.

    The census covers 31 locations around the island, and was first started in 1988/9 and has been carried out annually since 2005/6. The 2016 wirebird census was led by Eddie Duff and Kevin George, and an astounding 559 adult wirebirds were counted, the highest ever recorded. At the same time, 86 juveniles, 52 chicks and 55 nests were also counted.

    Wirebird numbers in locations that have been under active predator control and pasture management have shown an increase in numbers. Deadwood Plain recorded the highest number (106) since 1988/89. Rather surprisingly, numbers have continued to improve in Prosperous, despite the disruption from the airport project.

    The National Trust has been carrying out a programme of predator monitoring and control at the core sites of Deadwood, Man and Horse, and Upper Prosperous since 2011. The Trust has been supported in this work with grants from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), DFID’s Overseas Territories Environment Programme, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

    The greatest threats to wirebirds are predation, by cats and to a lesser extent rats and the common mynah, and vegetation changes due to invasive species. Where these threats are managed, the population shows a positive response. Increased survival and productivity in areas such as Deadwood will also help maintain numbers in other areas where they have been less successful through recruitment. However, what this also means is that if we stop controlling feral cats and rats and don’t manage invasive species, we can expect the population of wirebirds to fall back again. 

    This year’s count and positive population trend is a reflection of years of hard work by many people reaching back over the last decade. The long-term vision of the Wirebird Species Action Plan (2007, updated 2011) is for the people of St Helena and Wirebirds to find a way to happily co-exist – allowing St Helena to develop and the wirebird to thrive. We cannot afford to get complacent and we remain dedicated to sustaining these gains through extending predator control and habitat restoration work.